Joining a freakshow to really feel human: My life as a bearded burly carny lass

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Little Bear the Bearded Lady  
Photos by: Samuel S. Grahn
Photo by Samuel S. Grahn
Photo by Samuel S. Grahn

Hi. I'm Little Bear. If you haven’t heard of me, I’m a bearded lady. This is due to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Sure, I could shave (wax, laser, thread, sugar, pluck, etc.) if I wanted to. But I don’t want to, so I don’t.

I perform both solo as a singer of opera and show tunes (often incorporating burlesque), and as a member of Seattle-based modern sideshow troupe, Wreckless Freeks. And if the thought of a bearded lady who takes off her clothes, sings on stage, and lies on beds of nails brings to mind the term “attention seeking,” you may be right. However, I have not always been so candid in admitting so.

You see, with “normalcy” comes a sense of entitlement. People with the decorum to not put themselves on display like a pinwheel will freely, and lazily, arm-chair diagnose me, trying to find The Big Reason™ why I feel the need to degrade myself. This arises particularly often when I speak out about being harassed, objectified, shamed, and policed, under the ideology of “you’re asking for it.”

But if I’m not asking for it, why not just BE NORMAL? "Come on, Bear. Put your clothes back on, shave your face, pull your hand out of the raccoon trap, and stop looking for attention. You’re 32. Time to grow up."

Sometimes I will waste my breath attempting to explain the difference between embracing yourself and degrading yourself. And sometimes they will bounce back, sliding in a quick “narcissist” or “special snowflake” accusation before they disengage. In the end, nothing is resolved. Just two Rock’em Sock’em Robots throwing buzzword punches at each other before the game gets boring and the trolls move onto bigger and better conversations.

So, I realized that perhaps I’d been going about this all wrong.

Before I so shamelessly sought attention for a living, I was a pretty introverted 20-something living in sleepy small town Florida. I shaved my face, neck, and chest daily, praying to the Endocrine Gods to not let my 5 o'clock shadow creep in while in public. The only audience for my singing were the tiles in my shower. I undressed away from any mirrors, pretending my body didn't exist until it was rightfully concealed under tent-y clothing.

In September of 2013, after a very long dormancy period of love, I entered a long distance relationship with a progressive Seattleite guy who relished my uniqueness, and encouraged my individuality. By March, I packed 30 years of my life into a suitcase, and flew 3200 miles away to be near him. In April, emboldened by the lax and colorful nature of this exciting new city, I stopped shaving my face. In June, I took a step further, and entered my then-scant wisp of a goatee into a local Beard Competition (yes, that's a thing). I couldn't have known how much my life would change that day.

It was there I was approached by an imposing group of men who introduced themselves as the circus sideshow troupe, Wreckless Freeks. "A sideshow needs a bearded lady," they proposed, and really, that's all it took.

"Degrading" and "exploitative," never entered my mind, mainly because it didn't have TIME to. The understanding that I would be trained as I go along, learning different feats at every show, was established before any images of me sitting in a cage with nickels being tossed at me could be conjured.

In fact, with the exception of my boyfriend (who remained supportive throughout all of this), no one really ever treated me as dimensional and kind as the Freeks do. A funny and beautiful thing, it is, when it takes joining a freakshow to really feel human.

Word got out at a party that I sang opera, and soon I was being booked for singing gigs. With every gig, I grew bolder in theme, color, and costume (more quality, less quantity). My first performance was very adult-contemporary cabaret with me in an little black dress doing the hackneyed "this next song is a special one…" between tracks. These days, it's not unusual to find me on stage in clownface, glitter and topless in black tape pasties. It's all very Klaus-Nomi-does-drag-Pagliacci.

Somewhere in between then and now, one of my troupe members showed up to a solo show and decided I need to sing with the Freeks, STAT.

Today, I am a graduate of "prospect" status, and a full fledged Wreckless Freek. I can lie on a bed of nails while having 90lbs of concrete blocks smashed on me with a sledgehammer, get up, dust myself off, and dive right into a rendition of "Nessun Dorma" without blinking an eye.

For every creep who calls me "gross" on the street, there's a fan wanting to shake my hand and take my photo. Regardless of whether or not I seek attention, the fact is: I GET it.

The truth is this: You can't be a performer and not get some sort of high from applause, from spotlights, from, "OMG can we get a photo?" It's an amazing feeling, and you know why? Because at one point in my life having anyone notice my beard would have made me cry. Today, people reach out and touch it (with my consent) and tell me I'm brave, beautiful, and awesome.

If being an "attention whore" is the end result of my quest to not hate myself? I'll take it.

Am I "asking for it?" If you mean respect, happiness, love (yes, he's still here, being supportive), and success, then yes, I am.

Because it doesn't matter that I have a beard.

It doesn't matter that I take my clothes off.

It doesn't matter that I have things stapled to, thrown at, or broken on top of me.

This is my happy place. This is my bliss. And I am as entitled to and deserving of it as anyone else.

  1. You look super familiar, I think we may have gone to school together, actually! Just wanted to say this is a great piece and what you're doing is amazing for gender and body acceptance.

  2. "A sideshow needs a bearded lady," they proposed, and really, that's all it took.

    Goosebumps! This is the coolest story ever.

  3. As a fellow member of the PCOS tribe I must say BRAVA!

    My hair growth is not as pronounced although there are spots where I am not sure if it is PCOS or being Eastern European or a combination of both. I definitely hide my symptoms, I pluck every few days and this seems to work for me. I applaud your acceptance of your body and being so very brave. I still have not gotten over the idea that my body works against me. I hope one day to be as strong as you.

  4. I think you are so amazingly beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story with us, its an incredible one… I love reading about people who know their worth and who love their job, so you got the best of both on that one. Thanks for being a voice for those that think they cant be heard!

  5. Can I bottle this up and pass it out on days the world needs some happiness with their truth??
    *tears*
    You, ma'am, are a star shining as bright as the Sun and I bet it's obvious for any fans of the show. This made my day, thank you. <3

  6. Way cool. The best part of a relationship is the blessing of finding someone who loves you for who you are. Embraces your differences. Encourages you to be yourself. Way to be awesome! Both of you.

  7. I LOVE reading stories like these! Thank you so much for sharing. And, thank you Offbeat Home, for providing a supportive community where we can all share and grow.

    Little Bear, your eye makeup is gorgeous in that picture, by the way! Rock on!

  8. "a bearded lady who takes off her clothes, sings on stage, and lies on beds of nails"
    There's no part of this phrase that isn't awesome!

  9. You are a phenomenal human being, and I envy your external prowess. I hope your Wreckless Freaks travel, because we'd LOVE to have you in Phoenix!

    Best regards,
    Rose

    • Ah, we actually are doing a brief West Coast tour that will include OR, CA, and Las Vegas, but sadly we are not going to be stopping in AZ.
      However, we are hoping that with the exposure, connections, and funds we gain on this tour, we will be able to do it more often!

  10. thank you for putting yourself out there. i know you must get so many hurtful comments, but it is because of people like you who can look past them that we can grow as a country to be more accepting.

  11. You are awesome! But you know what struck me most in your story (apart from the fact that your journey to self-acceptance is truly inspiring…)? How in the world do you manage to lue on a bed of nails and have 90lbs of concrete smashed on you????? How???

    • Magic.

      No, but seriously? Every time I'm afraid of the physical pain that a feat might cause, I think of this: I could be shaving my face, working retail (no shame in retail, I just hate doing it), and miserable.
      I did that for years – and that hurt much much worse.

  12. Do you have any videos or vines up with you performing? I want to hear you sing! And if I get to hear you sing after dusting off the remnants of concrete blocks than that's pretty cool too 🙂

  13. I have been thinking about your post since I read I earlier today. Obviously all I know about you is what I read or otherwise viewed, so I cannot make claim to know you; however, if you are half as wonderful as what you seem to be, I would have to say that you are worth admiring. Not because you are brave for making the choice of not letting social expectations define you, but rather because you have taken control of your power and not apologized for it. This is particularly evident in the fact that you joined a self-proclaimed freak show. it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from the Gregory Maguire:“People always did like to talk, didn't they? That's why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it. As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention.”

    I have always been intrigued with the concept of the Other, since I have been keenly aware of my Otherness throughout my life. My studies have led me to believe that sometimes it is the Other scoffing conventions. That is power of the Self, and power is something you definitely have. Maybe you do not want to be called brave or strong, or called an inspiration, since each are loaded words. You do not need anyone's approval, or attention. Yet, to the Others out there struggling with accepting themselves, you help make them feel a little (or a lot!) stronger about who they are, even if they never completely show themselves.

    (I truly enjoyed your videos of you singing. Your voice is heart melting.)

    • Elphaba, I'm just floored. What a wonderful response. Thank you. And great Maguire quote, too.

      it's funny. I used to struggle with being called, "brave," big time because I felt like it was a nice (or backhanded) way of perpetuating how strange I was. i.e. "You're so brave. I could never leave the house looking like that."
      But I've come to terms with it recently. If you're interested, I actually wrote about it:
      http://www.ravishly.com/2015/04/10/little-bear-could-my-struggle-and-subsequent-embracing-term-%E2%80%9Cbrave%E2%80%9D

      Also thank you for the compliment on my voice. That means a lot 🙂

      • Thank you for the link to your article: I greatly enjoyed it. The fact that you realize that you are brave because you are afraid certainly unpacks the term and removes from it the idea that you are somehow fearless. Being fearless is a far cry from being brave.

        I also read the article about not having to be grateful for other people's attention. That article should be required reading. No one owes anyone gratitude for attention, especially uninvited attention about their bodies. I live in this body, so of course I know its capabilities and limitations, I do not need someone critiquing me with their bias. I also think it is important to point out that the idea of gratitude should not come into play with in relationships of all types, as it creates a power imbalance.

  14. Those ignorant folks don't realize that the worst attention-seeking behavior is the subtle stuff. I went through an attention-whore phase in my teens and twenties, performing at renaissance faires and being a social butterfly. It was 'wholesome', except for the fact that it was borne of low self-esteem and a need for validation, which I mostly sought between the sheets with men that didn't deserve my attention at all. To get on stage in front of a crowd and work your natural talents in a way that defies expectations? That's an honest, earnest route. And anything that challenges people to question their shallow norms is a good public education. I've got total respect for you, for being so strong (and also for singing opera!), and I'll definitely be checking out Wreckless Freeks.

  15. I think you got it right when you note the difference between people throwing coins at you in a cage, and people celebrating you with your differences and cheering and singing along. They're still called freakshows but I love that (a lot of them) have evolved to become such positive movements.

    You are amazing an inspiring!

    • Yeah, it's the not-exploitation-if-I'm-the-one-in-power (same that burlesque performers use to combat "but you're still victims of the male gaze" accusations) thing.

      As I began performing with them, we had a series of discussions making sure they never veered on objectifying or fetishizing me, and actually having me perform rather than just come on stage as, "look at this marvel of nature."

      And of course, once I started singing, that was cemented.

  16. I love this! I went through a phase where i would angry cry almost every morning because "girls" shouldn't have to do this (shave). I tried so hard to be a normal girl make up, clean shaven… etc. And then I got sick of it a became a dirty hippie for a year or so. I shaved when i felt like it never wore make up or a bra. I realize that in order to have the job that I love I have to be a little more conventional, you know daily showers, and nice clothes and all that, but I don't shave every day. I am me. My facial hair is part of me. why should i have to hide it. Ive gotten some odd glances and one guy thought i was transitioning… but for the most part no one comments on it (other than kids, who are super accepting when you explain it to them) or stares for the most part. (and I live in a smallish southern town). No more shame =)

  17. What's wrong with wanting attention? People climbing the corporate ladder clamor for it, politicians make seeking it their career, teachers do everything they can to keep their students' attention, and what minister wants the congregation to ignore his sermon? That doesn't mean that any of the above–or you–want the attention of drive-by shouters and trolls.

    What most conventional people don't understand is that weirdistas like us specifically seek the attention of birds of a feather. We want our peers to find us, and that's hard for rare birds to achieve when surrounded by the common flock, so we grow exotic feathers that iridesce in the light.

    I am so happy that you found your flock, and especially the one who cheers and supports you most of all!

  18. I really wish I had the confidence to be like this. I'd love to be part of a freak show or something like that, where I can just embrace the weird or something, but I just don't have it in me yet >.<.

    My PCOS lead to severe bullying and I've never been able to get past the shaving and hiding.

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